3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty
This particular thesis relates closely to what we’ve just laid out in section 2. The central place of liberty in the American project is evident to everyone. What is less known, however, is the fact that this term underwent a major shift in meaning before it became cornerstone in our political self-understanding.
In paradigm shifts in the sciences, it is common to see key terms from the older theory retained, but having undergone radical changes in meaning to fit the new paradigm. Important terms are not often abandoned entirely; rather they are repurposed. Of course similar semantic shifts also occur in periods of cultural or political revolution. A cherished concept like liberty becomes the prize in an ideological struggle; and the revolutionaries, if successful, seize it as their own, managing in the process to modify its meaning even as they lay claim to its old prestige.
Deneen makes clear that Enlightenment thinkers did not formulate their new politics from scratch, but developed it out of ancient and medieval political concepts which they bent into new shapes to match their new order. This was both an organic development (one typically works with the concepts one inherits) and a strategic one (the populace can only be rallied with terms they recognize). In the case of the traditional concept liberty, the semantic shift pulled off by these thinkers hit at the roots of the ancient concept.
Deneen lays out the tradition behind the term as follows:
Liberalism did not, of course, discover or invent the human longing for liberty: the word libertas is of ancient origin, and its defense and realization have been a primary goal from the first forays into political philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. The foundational texts of the Western political tradition focused especially on the question how to constrain the impulse to and assertions of tyranny, and characteristically settled upon the cultivation of virtue and self-rule as the key correctives to the tyrannical temptation. The Greeks especially regarded self-government as a continuity from the individual to the polity, with the realization of either only possible if the virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation, and justice were to be mutually sustained and fostered. Self-governance in the city was possible only if the virtue of self-governance governed the souls of citizens; and self-governance of individuals could be realized only in a city that understood that citizenship itself was a kind of ongoing habituation in virtue, through both law and custom. (italics mine)
For the Greeks, any polity that would avoid falling into tyranny must first understand the necessity of teaching its individual citizens to rule themselves, to control their appetites and recognize a certain degree of duty to the whole. Liberty, then, was a dual condition: a virtue in possession of which individuals would be free both from the overweening demands of their own greed and lust (pushing at them from the inside) and from the tyrant who would always be ready to seize control of their polity (pushing at them from the outside). Needless to say, this is hardly how Americans understand liberty today. Liberty in America is largely two things: 1) my personal freedom to behave/consume/think as I choose without others impeding me; 2) the power of the American government to uphold this freedom against all challengers (whether communist, fascist, etc.). Nowhere in this American understanding of liberty is the key classical and medieval element of liberty from the overweening power of one’s own lusts.
How was this change in stress effected?
Liberty was fundamentally reconceived, even if the word was retained.… Liberty [had long been thought] to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government. Classical and Christian political thought was self-admittedly more “art” than “science”: it relied extensively on the fortunate appearance of inspiring founding figures and statesmen who could uphold political and social self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, and acknowledged the likelihood of decay and corruption as an inevitable future of any human institution….
The roots of liberalism lay in efforts to overturn a variety of anthropological assumptions and social norms that had come to be believed as sources of pathology--namely, fonts of conflict as well as obstacles to individual liberty. The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and action.
Deneen traces this project back to Machiavelli, who first explicitly rejected what he saw as the unrealistic political fantasies of previous republics. For Machiavelli, the old belief that strong republics were founded on the cultivation of virtue was laughably naive.
Rather than promoting unrealistic standards for behavior--especially self-limitation--that could at best be unreliably achieved, Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon readily observable human behaviors of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory…. By acknowledging ineradicable human selfishness and the desire for material goods, one might conceive of ways to harness those motivations rather than seeking to moderate or limit those desires.
Of course this basic Machiavellian insight comes most into its own in our modern thinking on the advantages of the free market. After Machiavelli, Hobbes and Descartes proved crucial as sources of the new politics.
Second, the classical and Christian emphasis upon virtue … relied upon reinforcing norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life. What were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue--and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny--came to be viewed as sources of oppression, arbitrariness, and limitation. Descartes and Hobbes in turn argued that the rule of irrational custom and unexamined tradition--especially religious belief and practice--was a source of arbitrary governance and unproductive internecine conflicts, and thus an obstacle to a stable and prosperous regime. Each proposed remediating the presence of custom and tradition by introducing “thought experiments” that reduced people to their natural essence--conceptually stripping humans of accidental attributes that obscured from us our true nature--so that philosophy and politics could be based upon a reasoned and reflective footing. Both expressed confidence in a more individualistic rationality … and each believed that potential deviations from rationality could be corrected by the legal prohibitions and sanctions of a centralized political state.
These are the philosophical roots of later Enlightenment thinkers' radical repurposing of the concept liberty. Deneen would not deny that many social goods have been effected based on this shift. But by the latter decades of the 20th century, if not earlier, the social pathologies such reconfigured liberty encouraged became obvious. And at present, well into the new century, it’s become impossible to ignore that while many things were gained, many others were lost.
Deneen makes clear how liberty as we now conceive it may be encouraging a kind of mass barbarism. On the one hand, democracy as a task, as something needing active civic engagement and cultivation at the local level, is giving way to a growing statism, where “democratic” activists rise up to demand their “rights” or “entitlements” from a state that is seen as Great Provider. Simultaneously, these rights or entitlements continue to grow well beyond anything put forward in the original liberal charter. On the other hand, the Hobbesian shift in the understanding of liberty--that we are somehow born as free individuals rather than needing to learn liberty as a social practice--raises up citizens that conceive of their own liberty as grounded in their bodies, almost as with some animal species (bears, for instance, which rove as individuals, rather than chimpanzees, which live in groups). As liberalism develops, such cultureless individualism becomes the norm, leading, as we have seen, to a need for external checks:
Informal relationships are replaced by administrative directives, political policies, and legal mandates … requiring an ever-expanding state apparatus to ensure social cooperation. The threat and evidence of declining civic norms require centralized surveillance, highly visible police presence, and a carceral state to control the effects of its own successes while diminishing civic trust and mutual commitment.
Always with a mind to the role of education in political formation, Deneen sees the hand of this liberalism in recent developments on our campuses:
Liberalism … undermines education by replacing a definition of liberty as an education in self-government with liberty as autonomy and the absence of constraint. Ultimately it destroys liberal education, since it begins with the assumption that we are born free, rather than that we must learn to become free. Under liberalism, the liberal arts are instruments of personal liberation, an end that is consistently pursued in the humanities, in the scientific and mathematical disciplines (STEM), and in economics and business. In the humanities, liberatory movements based on claims of identity regard the past as a repository of oppression, and hence displace the legitimacy of the humanities as a source of education. Meanwhile, the subjects that advance the practical and effectual experience of autonomy--STEM, economics, and business--come to be regarded as the sole subjects of justified study.
Both left and right push this dynamic forward, so that now we have come to the odd pass were the humanities are largely “victim studies” (only good for producing activists bent on further destruction of their own cultural roots) and where “practical” fields are conceived as job training. Completely lost is the vision of education as the preparation of citizens for life in a republic.
In all of this, note that liberty, in a belated echo of the mechanistic thinking of the early moderns, must always be liberty of bodies. Deneen traces this logic in our current humanities, where now we see that only bodily, physical differences count as valid grounds for claiming victim status:
The humanities and social sciences … focus on identity politics and redressing past injustices to specific groups, under the “multicultural” and “diversity” banners…. [But the] groups that are deemed worthy of strenuous efforts to redress grievances are identified for features relating to their bodies--race, gender, sexual identity--while “communities of work and culture,” including cohesive ethnic and class groupings, receive scant attention. Thus while students’ groups grounded in racial or sexual identity demand justice so that they can fully join modern liberal society, cohesive ethnic groups resistant to liberal expressive individualism like Kurds or Hmong, persecuted religious minorities such as Copts, non urban nonelites such as leaders in the 4-H, and the rural poor can expect little attention from today’s campus liberals.
At present these developments are writ large only in academic settings, which has led some to claim that all this is only a matter of “student protest”, that the kids will eventually “grow up and face the real world”. What is ignored in this assessment is the fact that these very campuses are training the people who will soon move into directorial positions across the culture, in government, media and the corporate world. Already, especially in high tech, we see precisely these kinds of “political correctness” determining corporate policy and affecting the whole society through the above-mentioned “Community Standards” guidelines that are little more than liberal censorship of public discourse. This same mentality is getting ever more entrenched in print and television media as well.
In various ways, then, the Enlightenment rewriting of the concept liberty, in Deneen’s view, has led to a social order that valorizes hedonism and greed even as it barbarizes what used to be liberal education. Given the central role of education in any advanced polity, a role the ancients well understood, our liberal republics are put in jeopardy by the changes this liberal "liberty" has belatedly brought to our universities.
Next: 4. Liberalism creates a globalized monoculture
Order Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed at Amazon.
Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.